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George Segal’s ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ brings back memories of Yom Kippur War

It’s been 50 years since American pop artist George Segal’s sculpture “Sacrifice of Isaac” was first installed outside Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium, and some 46 years since it was last viewed by the public.

After a lengthy conservation process, the white plaster, life-size sculpture depicting the figures of Abraham and Isaac at the defining moment of the biblical story, is now at the center of a Tel Aviv Museum of Art gallery through January 13, 2024, situated next to “Kippur, War Requiem,” the Amos Gitai retrospective on war.

The sculpture’s display marks the end of the comprehensive, several-year conservation process to bring it back for public viewing. It comes on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, although the original commission was unrelated.

Segal was initially commissioned by the Tel Aviv Literature and Art Foundation for a project to install sculptures throughout the city.

The modernist artist, raised in New York by his Eastern European immigrant parents, chose the story of the sacrifice of Isaac as an homage to his father and his own affinity with the biblical story. The sculpture was first exhibited in May 1973 at the outdoor plaza of Tel Aviv’s Mann auditorium.

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Five months following the sculpture’s installation, the Yom Kippur War broke out, and the events of those weeks of war charged the sculpture with a new range of political and social meanings.

George Segal’s ‘Sacrifice of Isaac,’ newly restored and on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through January 13, 2024 (Courtesy TAMA)

In the sculpture, Abraham is standing, holding a kitchen knife in his right hand, his left hand fisted as he gazes at Isaac, lying at his feet.

The lifelike image of the Binding of Isaac was likened to the families sacrificing their sons in battle, an analogy that struck a raw nerve for many.

Segal’s models for the sculpture had been his friend, artist Menashe Kadishman, already established as a successful artist in Israel and the world, and Kadishman’s nine-year-old son at the time, Ben.

Eventually, Segal’s sculpture was moved to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and later ended up in storage.

Years later, Kadishman ended up creating his own take on the Sacrifice of Isaac story, with a connection to his own son’s beginning his service in the Israeli army.

Menashe Kadishman’s metal sculptures outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art offer another take on the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Courtesy TAMA)

During the 1982 Lebanon War, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was gifted one of Kadishman’s works, the oversized metal sculptures outside the museum that feature a worried couple, and to their left, a large ram’s head symbolizing the sacrifice substituted for Isaac. In the foreground lies a solitary disk, the head of Isaac, showing a reversal of the biblical story.

The new exhibit includes a movie about the history of the sculpture, Kadishman’s involvement, as well as the lengthy conservation process.

Segal was known for works that often captured a contemporary moment of life while sticking with the traditions of classical sculpture. He often used plaster, as he did in “Sacrifice of Isaac,” a material usually used for molds and more fragile, breaking down over time.

“Sacrifice of Isaac” is extremely heavy, said assistant curator Nathalie Andrijasevic, and is fused from two pieces.

The sculpture took some three years to be restored, with funding provided through a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.